08 Nov 2012

Grieg – Two Elegiac Melodies for String Orchestra, op. 34

By Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: strings.

Duration: 9 minutes in two movements.

THE COMPOSER – EDVARD GRIEG (1843-1907) – Grieg suffered from chronic illnesses that often rendered him professionally unproductive for months at a time. 1880 marked the end of just such a period and Grieg announced his return to artistic activity with an appointment as conductor of the orchestra in his home city Bergen. He would only hold this post until 1882 and settled afterward into a structured schedule of composition and touring.    

THE MUSIC – The inspiration for Grieg’s return to work in 1880 was poet Aasmund Olafsson Vinje. Vinje (1818-1870) was a quintessential Romantic nationalist whose art often focused on rural Norwegian life. Grieg, who could be described in much the same way, found kindred sentiment in Vinje’s words. He chose twelve poems to set as lieder and published them as his op. 33 in 1880. Separated into two “books,” Twelve Melodies after Poems by Vinje was translated into many languages under Grieg’s watchful eye. He was intent on seeing the flavor of the original texts accurately represented in each new form and this standard was no less applicable to himself. In the op. 34 Two Elegiac Melodies Grieg took two from among the original twelve poems and “translated” them for string orchestra. Rather than use the verse as wellsprings for a pair of short tone poems, Grieg simply re-wrote the vocal lines in the language of strings and the word-for-note orchestration he employed was a stroke of delicate genius. The first movement speaks of the wounds of life and their inability to destroy faith. The second, Last Spring, imagines the season of rebirth colored by the possibility that the viewer may not live to see another. Grieg also arranged these two poems for solo piano in 1880 but the string orchestra version stands out as the most representative of the composer’s nostalgic sense of home.     

THE WORLD – 1880 was the year of the Basuto Gun War in British Basutoland (present-day Lesotho). Also in 1880, Tahiti surrendered its sovereignty to France, famed Australian bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne and Mark Twain published A Tramp Abroad.

THE CONNECTION – Grieg’s Elegiac Melodies have only appeared on one previous Utah Symphony Masterworks concert. The year was 1944 and the conductor was Hans Heniot.